Characterization of Fc receptor family proteins in vaginal and endocervical epithelia
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In the age of highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART), patients infected with Human Immunodeficiency Virus Type 1 (HIV-1) are now living significantly healthier and longer lives. However, HIV prevention and cure still remain significant challenges. Globally, women face specific barriers to using and accessing both female and male condoms, the primary method recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) to prevent sexual transmission of HIV-1. Although HAART treatment as prevention (TasP) of HIV has shown promising preliminary results, poor economic feasibility of the method in resource poor settings has yet to be resolved. Since women carry over 50% of the disease burden, there is a significant need for the development of a female-controlled method of prevention. One such approach is the reformulation of topical vaginal microbicides. Our laboratory is developing HIV-targeted microbicide formulations that utilize highly specific, broadly neutralizing anti-HIV antibodies (bNAbs). The purpose of my research project was to characterize Fc receptor expression in epithelial cell models of the lower female genital tract with a particular focus on the neonatal Fc receptor (FcRn). Fc receptors are a large family of proteins that bind to the Fc region of immunoglobulins (Igs) and function in Ig transport and effector functions. These receptors could function in enhancing the delivery of bNAbs in microbicide formulations or potentially serve as a mechanism of delivering HIV to target cells in tissues via transport of HIV-antibody complexes. Thus, this thesis assesses Fc receptor expression in human vaginal and endocervical organotypic cultures via microarray, quantitative RT-PCR, immunohistology and preliminary functional assays. Microarray results revealed significant expression of Fc receptor family genes in the epithelial cells of the lower female reproductive tract (FRT). The polymeric immunoglobulin receptor (pIgR), a well-characterized receptor that transports secretory IgA across mucosal epithelia, was abundantly expressed and hormonally regulated in epithelial cells of the vagina and endocervix. FcRn, a receptor originally characterized in the placenta and gut where it confers passive immunity from mother-to-child via bidirectional IgG transcytosis, was expressed in both tissue models. Moreover, several members of the novel FC receptor-like (FCRL) family were detected by microarray in both models. Immunohistological staining revealed pIgR protein in the endocervical mucosal epithelium, confirming current literature describing its expression in the FRT and role in local production of cervicovaginal secretions. FcRn protein expression was detected in the basal cell layer of the stratified squamous vaginal epithelium and in the columnar cells of the endocervix. Preliminary functional assays did not observe FcRn-specific transcytosis of human IgG across vaginal or endocervical epithelia by ELISA or immunohistology. VRCO1, a monoclonal antibody in development for application in microbicide formulation, crossed the epithelium, but was likely not transcytosed via FcRn because immunohistology revealed the presence of antibody between epithelial cells rather than the expected intracellular localization of IgG utilized in the FcRn mechanism. These preliminary findings indicate that Fc receptors, pIgR and Fc receptor-like proteins may play an important role in antibody-mediated immune responses in the FRT. Further research is require to determine whether FcRn functions in HIV-antibody complex-mediated HIV transmission or monoclonal antibody transcytosis.